By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The two scenes could scarcely have seemed more divergent:
A comfortable waterfront home in Fauntleroy / a crowded complex in Burien.
The sound of small talk and laughter / the crackle of gunshots, followed by chaos.
A colorful rug adorning a wood floor / blood staining the pavement.
The scenes were five miles and eight days apart – with one connection: A crisis.
In Burien, that crisis, youth violence – youth, in reference to the victims and/or perpetrators – stole two young women’s lives.
In Fauntleroy, that crisis, youth violence, brought together an extraordinary assemblage of people who all had the ability to do something about it.
Some of them were associated with Southwest Youth and Family Services (SWYFS), the Delridge-headquartered nonprofit that issued the invitation to a conversation about “current successes and gaps” in preventing youth violence.
SWYFS’s work in that realm includes being a partner agency for programs such as the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, and questions about its future erupted at points during the evening.
“What an amazing time to have this discussion,” said facilitator Mark Wirschem, a retired King County Juvenile Treatment Services manager and current SWYFS board member. He expressed the hope shown by last month’s March For Our Lives, “privileged white youth embracing (and working with) youth of color.”
Solemnly, Wirschem also said that every word of the evening ahead should be in honor of the young women killed in Burien. While violence on school campuses has been in the spotlight recently, its victims number in the hundreds, while youth killed by gunfire in all circumstances each year number in the thousands – homicide predominant among black and brown children, suicide predominant among white children. Mental-illness treatment is vital. “We’e here about trauma and the impacts of trauma … These kids sometimes are victims before they commit offenses.” He urged work “to erase the margins between us and the marginalized” – youth don’t want to be judged, they want to be respected as they are. He also talked about county programs to help people get out of the “gang life.”
No doubt, everyone in the room had stories they could have spent the night telling. Not everyone spoke. The next who did: Robert Gant, director of the Counseling Center at SWYFS, where he has worked for almost 20 years. Shifting a lens to consider what’s happened in someone’s life, as a way of understanding what they are doing, is important, though he said accountability is too.
He also mentioned trauma, talking about “trauma-informed care.” Returning again to the Burien murders, he spoke of another SWYFS staffer getting a text early in the day from a school official, saying, “Our young people are hurting; what can you do?” They reached a therapist immediately and headed to the school. They “offer(ed) a space for all these young people to come through and process what’s going on” – they supported staff, too, and also had someone at a middle school to talk with youth who were at the shooting scene.
South King County is an increasing area of focus for SWYFS, added Justin Cox, King County Violence Prevention Program manager, and the staffer to whom Gant had referred. But they’re short-handed, covering the south county from White Center to Auburn with a team of six. More volunteers would help as well as more staff.
Debra Williams, who coordinates the Aggression-Replacement Therapy (ART) program, had a personal history to recount, with her children participating in SWYFS programs long before she joined the staff. Her program helps youth “change negative behaviors” via social skills, moral reasoning, anger-control training. They help youth understand anger “inside and out” and what it does in the community. The program has an 88 percent success rate – no crimes – “it’s a win-win program for us in the community.” They meet with youth three times a week, one hour at a time, create relationships, “show you how to keep your personal power -” by teaching “the ability to control what happens to you from the actions and choices you make.”
One attendee observed that adults need help too – we train people in math, in science, but not in social skills. “How do you reach out more to society?” she wondered.
Williams observed in response that the lack of these skills has been affected by the loss of the family-unit gathering, such as sitting down together at dinner. Many social skills were provided at home, she mused, but not so much any more, so the skills she teaches are as basic as “respect your elders.”
The program is relatively expensive – $2,000 to $3,000 per person – but, facilitator Wirschem observed, that is less expensive than the five-digit cost if the youth ends up in the criminal-justice system.
Where do ART referrals come from? Self-referrals, school counselors … “What kind of kid is most suitable?” “Any kind who is troubled – if they’re being expelled, they’re aggressive, they have anger that’s not controlled …” Williams said ideally, every kid, every adult could benefit from ART. “The way a case manager might navigate you through the hospital system, we will navigate you through anger.”
“But we as a society are not willing to pay for it,” observed Leslie Harris, the West Seattleite who is president of the Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors, reminding all that the state is only funding 9 nurses for a district of 54,000 students. The need, she added, is so great, “but we’re not willing to pay for it, to frontload it, to make sure these children have a future.”
Sadly true, acknowledged Williams, and yet we know what the outcome can be – pointing again to the loss of two young women.
“You pay for it – not the way you want to pay for it,” called out a voice from the back of the room.
Anothe attendee observed that every adult has the opportunity to influence a young person by modeling behavior.
SWYFS has funding from the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, it was noted, though its future is uncertain. They hope the collaboration will continue, regardless of the specific program’s future. A new data system is enabling better continuity, Gant said, if a young person for example moves out of this area.
Wischam elaborated: Anything that can be done … to address funding, keep it going. The $8 million from SWYVPI just covers Seattle. “Keep those big initiatives going, and more.”
King County Chair Joe McDermott asked for clarification on the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative funding. It’s from the city general fund, initiated a few mayors ago, and is undergoing review, said SWYFS executive director Steve Daschle, to see if the existing program should be continued, or if something new should be tried.
Marcus Stubblefield from King County’s Criminal Justice Policy and Strategy Section said that this should be a unified effort, between city and county and others.
Youth violence needs to be seen as a crisis, and funding will follow, suggested another participant.
Daschle picked up from what Stubblefield said, stressing the importance of continuity beyond the city limits, talking about New Futures, which has been part of SWYFS for five years, since resources “dried up” in South King County – not just county funding, but also public-school funding. He explained that New Futures once operated at the 500+-unit Burien complex where the double murder happened, formerly known as The Heights, now Alturas. “We’re trying to go back into (that complex) with some form of the New Futures program … we want to avoid violence (becoming) a way of life” as it is in cities such as Chicago.
Stubblefield said, “You teach kids how to manage conflict.” Absent that teaching, they get a gun and feel that’s what gives them power.
One attendee asked, “And what does it say to kids when adults won’t let their guns go?”
“In some neighborhoods,” answered Stubblefield, “(adults) give guns to kids to protect themselves.”
To address that – build leadership among our young people, Gant urged. And even for those who have started down a dangerous road, he noted, many of the skills that facilitate survival on the streets are transferable – so, “how can we transfer that skill in a way that they can become leaders, transfer it in a healthy way?”
Mike Dey, husband of SWYFS board member Susan Lantz-Dey, the evening’s host, talked about how slowly the system works, how months might elapse between an offense and the action that is taken.
That turned talk toward the criminal-justice system, represented in the room by at least two judges. One said that the county’s courts, prosecuting attorney, and public defender have lost a lot of funding in the past decade. Continuing needs for cuts have led to actions such as closing the 4th Avenue entrance to the downtown courthouse, which in turn raises access issues: “It goes back to Tim Eyman’s initiatives … The county’s general-fund funding is broken, and it’s been broken for years.” To the wait that Dey had mentioned, the judge said, cases aren’t being filed for months because there’s no prosecutor to handle it – or because police might not have been able to refer it.
That brought a mention of King County’s “new youth jail” and a question, why does the county have funding for that but not for the other things?. One of the criminal-justice professionals present pointed out that it was approved by the voters, money that could only be used for a capital (construction) project, and that much of it will include non-detention facilities.
Anyone want to form a committee to talk about how to get new funding for the types of programs discussed earlier in the evening? asked a community member.
McDermott said, “I’m in.”
A participant warned of tax fatigue. That led to discussion of the problems of our state’s tax system – “inequitable and regressive,” as Harris put it, also declaring “it’s ‘fake news’ that we’ve addressed the McCleary crisis, because we do not value our children.”
If we don’t take care of them, nothing matters, said Wirschem.
The most plaintive voice of the night, that of a visitor from Chicago, interjected that he “stands in the gap” for youth who are not in programs. “How can all of this help them? The one that are currently in gangs, currently killing each other… Right now, in this time, gun violence IS the answer [for them] … because there’s too many meetings, too many people gathering in one place for too long, and not bringing all the knowledge and resources to the streets … Whatever resources you have, whatever power you have, you need to bring it to the streets … some of them don’t even get a chance to get incarcerated … they just die.”
There was no simple retort or summary for that; it lingered in the air as people rose from their chairs and moved into small conversations, perhaps to make small steps toward steering youth to safety before it’s too late.